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Between 1860 and 1914, three to four million people passed along Durban’s waterfronts, most travelling to or from an industrialising hinterland that a colonial gatekeeper called a ‘Mecca for aliens.’ This article explores mass migration through Durban and the changes the phenomenon brought to the social world and built environments around the lagoon that forms today’s large container port. Using Immigration, Harbour Department and Water Police archives, it shows how the lagoon, until the mid-nineteenth century an obscure outlier in the Indian Ocean World, became deeply integrated with processes simultaneously underway across much of maritime Asia. After an introduction that places colonial Durban alongside the wider changes common to many Indian-Ocean ports, we set the scene with an overview of the lagoon’s deep precolonial past. The core argument then moves through several phases. First, economic and technological developments from the 1850s, designed to inflate cargo capacity, also intensified transoceanic migrant traffic. This generated a rich cultural heterogeneity on the lagoon’s fringes. Second, mass migration fueled a backlash among colonial authorities, who built an elaborate architecture of detention and surveillance around the inner shore. Third, some migrants subverted the new order by ‘jumping ship’ in creative ways, ensuring the waterfronts remained, for a time, unruly heterotopia. In these ways, Durban became a characteristic Indian Ocean port city. But Durban authorities introduced an unusual element: to the north they created a recreational beachfront for settler elites. This ultimately reorientated the city’s waterfront away from the lagoon to the open ocean, casting the former’s social history into the shadows.
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